Flat White

Could the ‘Cook Islands Option’ save our Pacific family?

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

2 April 2022

9:00 AM

In light of the possibility of a Chinese military base soon being installed in the Solomon Islands, it may be time to consider offering our Pacific neighbours the option of becoming associated states with Australia, in the same way as the Cook Islands and Niue are associated states with New Zealand. This may be the only sure way of keeping the Chinese from establishing bases within Australia’s inner arc.

The inner arc of islands to our north and east are critical to Australia’s security. For a major adversary to pose a territorial threat to Australia, they would have to first establish bases in neighbours like Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands – just as the Japanese sought to do in the second world war. Preventing a hostile power from establishing such bases in Australia’s inner arc has been a mainstay of Australian strategic thinking going as far back as Alfred Deakin.

Short of war, were an invading force to amass these bases would offer a potential adversary surveillance and even control of Australia’s maritime approaches. This would place Australian bases, as well as population centres well within missile range. More specifically with regard to a base in the Solomon Islands, it provides signals-intelligence coverage over the Australian eastern seaboard, which would cover a proposed naval base from which Australian, British, and American submarines will operate.

While I believe China’s rise is inevitable, and so believe it is unrealistic to try and resist it, Australians nevertheless have to be relaxed and comfortable with this changing world. The Aukus security arrangement goes a long way toward assuaging Australian anxieties in today’s disconcerting geopolitical environment.

However, in trying to fend potential adversaries away from our near neighbours, we cannot realistically expect to outbid China. While the cultural and historical links of ‘family’ are real, they can only go so far. At the end of the day, money talks, and the Chinese, with their deeper pockets, can make more of a significant impact on the lives of our Pacific neighbours.

The trump card may therefore lie in offering to our Pacific ‘family’ the possibility of free association with Australia, in the same way that the Cook Islands and Niue are in free association with New Zealand.

Cook Islanders and Niueans are also New Zealand citizens, with New Zealand acting on their behalf in foreign affairs and defence. The United States has similar association arrangements with the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau. The difference is that New Zealand’s arrangement is more consultative, acting only at the request, advice, and consent of the Islanders.

Australia could simultaneously test the waters and demonstrate its bona fides by first offering such an arrangement to the microstates of Nauru and Tuvalu. The population of both countries put together is not much more than what has been Australia’s annual refugee intake. So even in the unlikely event that they were for some reason all relocated to Australia at some future time, it would barely be noticeable to the Australian public. Moreover, Naura – since exhausting its phosphate reserves – has effectively become a ward of Australia, so such an arrangement would merely be formalising a de facto reality.

No doubt in recognition of the importance of the inner arc to our national security, Australia has in recent years invested heavily in having a force-projection capability. As a result of Plan Beersheba, Australia’s three regular Army brigades have been restructured, such that at any one time, one brigade (numbering up to 4,000 personnel) is ready to be deployed for both high- and low-intensity operations.

To that end, Australia purchased two great big Canberra-class amphibious-assault ships (or Landing Helicopter Docks, to be more politically correct) as well as a Bay-class landing ship. In terms of deployment by air, Australia now has eight great big C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft, on top of the smaller 12 C-130 Hercules transporters that have been traditionally relied upon. Having such a projection capability tempted Tony Abbott to throw his weight around in Ukraine.

Further cementing this transition to deployability, all of the regular Army infantry battalions now double up as marines, with 2 RAR being the dedicated amphibious battalion and the other battalions taking the amphibious role in turns.

Australia is serious about militarily ensuring that no potentially hostile power gains a foothold in our near arc, as well as having the capacity to deploy a multi-role combat brigade further afield as part of a coalition engaging in high-intensity operations.

Nevertheless, this does not seem to be deterring the Chinese, with events in the Solomon Islands underscoring this point. That said, the Chinese seem to be behaving strangely in threatening to establish a military base in the Solomon Islands at this time.

According to the Island Chain Strategy, for the Chinese to pose a genuine threat to Australia, they would have to first gain dominance over the First Island Chain, with Taiwan as its anchor, followed by the Second Island Chain, with the anchor of Guam currently hosting a massive American base.

As things stand now, a Chinese base in the Solomon Islands – in the distant Third Island Chain – would have long and tenuous supply lines that would be vulnerable to interdiction. The Chinese therefore seem to be only making a statement with the threat of such a base, needling, and intimidating Australia.

Nevertheless, in the long term, such a base could pose a genuine rather than merely symbolic threat, and it behoves Australia to secure its near arc at all costs. Starting with microstates like Nauru and Tuvalu, the offer of association – if found palatable to the Australian public and the Islanders – could progressively be extended to the larger islands. This process could take up to twenty to thirty years, depending on the islands in question and their size, involving something akin to the Copenhagen criteria, with the criteria probably varying with each state.

Either something like that, or we get used to the idea of potentially hostile bases in Port Moresby, Suva, or Honiara.

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